Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 24, 2014
Richard Benefield, Lawrence Weschler, Sarah Howgate, and David Hockney David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition Exh. cat. New York and San Francisco: Del Monico Books and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2013. 228 pp.; 404 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9783791353340)
Exhibition schedule: de Young Museum, San Francisco, October 26, 2013–January 20, 2014
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What is an exhibition for? What can it produce? In its earliest forms in the middle of the eighteenth century—the Salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the exhibiting societies of London—the exhibition was a collective affair, organized among artists: a form of self-assessment and public presentation mediating between a guild of merchant craftsmen and the unstable fractions within the public that might provide a market for those artists’ work. In this anxious context the emergence of the “solo” exhibition, as curator João Ribas has argued in recent lectures, risked the appearance of careerism, conceit, and self-interest (João Ribas, “What Is It That Makes Today’s Solo Exhibitions So Different, So Appealing?” Shanghai Art Museum, October 3, 2012). This negative impression stuck. In a letter to his son in 1885, a vexed Camille Pissarro referred to a recent solo exhibition of Claude Monet, cautioning, “A poor idea, to have one-man shows. The newspapers, knowing that a dealer is behind it, do not breathe a word” (Camille Pissarro, Letters to His Son Lucien, New York: Pantheon, 1943, 25).

David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition called some of these misgivings to mind. Enlarging the 2012 exhibition A Bigger Picture, organized by the Royal Academy of Arts in London and curated by Marco Livingstone and Edith Devaney, this edition was organized by the de Young Museum without curators. It emerged instead from conversations among Richard Benefield, the museum’s deputy director, acting on the prompt of Diane “Dede” Wilsey, the president of the museum’s board, and Hockney’s former lover and previous long-time Los Angeles studio manager, Gregory Evans. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, of which the de Young is a central part, have been the subject of controversy in recent years, with the firing of curator Lynn Orr in November 2012, and curator emeritus Robert Flynn Johnson accusing the museums of inhabiting “a state of Orwellian dysfunction” in the New York Times (Patricia Cohen, “Turmoil at Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco,” The New York Times [March 15, 2013]: C1). (This state of affairs makes room for arrangements like the one with Evans.) Compiling hundreds of works produced between 2002 and 2013 (the catalogue lists 255 works, while the press release advertises “more than 300”) in a wide range of media, A Bigger Exhibition was the first sizable presentation in the United States of Hockney’s art since an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 2006. It dwarfs the LACMA presentation and was, as Benefield writes in the exhibition’s catalogue, “the largest exhibition in the history of the de Young” (19).

Bigness, largeness: this is the premise of the exhibition. Hockney has indeed been busy in the last decade, producing cartoon landscapes of the East Yorkshire countryside; thirty paintings riffing on Claude Lorraine’s 1656 Sermon on the Mount; portraits in oil or charcoal of visitors, friends, and studio denizens; scores of drawings made with an iPad using the Brushes application; digital videos using multiple cameras trained on arborescent country roads, or on the goings-on of the studio, or on jugglers; twenty-five more landscapes in charcoal, new to this exhibition; and The Great Wall (2000), which presents Hockney’s exhaustive survey of European portraiture and still life, research that the artist has argued (in Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, London: Thames and Hudson, 2001) demonstrates the incursion of optical devices into the project of realist painting since the Renaissance.

Adhering, more or less, to Hockney’s chronology of making, the exhibition obviated questions of narrative, argument, or assessment in favor of trumpeting a sheer productivity about which one found little hint of Pissarro’s embarrassment. Particularly pronounced was the emphasis, borrowed from the earlier exhibition, on the verdant agricultural landscape of the Yorkshire countryside. Frequently painted en plein air, few of these gave much impression of the artist’s firsthand observation, instead suggesting that patchwork patterns of fields, trees, and rural roads were pretexts for the artist’s formal experimentation. Yet the scores of landscapes in fantasy colors seem factory produced, and sometimes, shockingly, poorly painted.

By absenting argument, A Bigger Exhibition missed its opportunity to show the ongoing importance of Hockney’s painting and drawing, his inquiry into photographic space, or his experiments with new media. Instead, the main idea that the exhibition conveyed was that Hockney is committed to a daily artistic practice; whether in California, in Iceland, or in the United Kingdom, whether in the studio, on a veranda, or out in a field, he engages with the world by making pictures. That he is industrious is undeniably true, although proliferation is a flimsy curatorial premise, especially when too often it seems as if the artist could not care less about the individual works. The portraits, on which some measure of Hockney’s reputation relies, have passages of startling lucidity and draftsmanship—a hand, a cufflink, a nose—but devolve elsewhere into formless sketch; virtuosic details are glued haphazardly to rushed torsos.

Lightness and gigantism make for strange bedpartners; the sensation of taking in the painted landscapes was something like being thwacked about the head with a pillow of cotton candy. Visitors to the exhibition had two choices: either to gape at each room in turn (as was the organizers’ evident plan) or to focus on individual works. On approaching the exhibition, for example, we were arrested by three photocollages dating back to the 1980s, hung outside the entrance to the show. These works served as an immediate argument for why Hockney has entered the canon of important late twentieth-century artists. Composed of overlapping snapshots (a patch of grass, part of a shoe), each retaining its own pictorial logic, they amount to larger scenes depicting Yosemite, Los Angeles, and the artist’s mother.

Inside the exhibition, a series of watercolor portraits from 2002 presented each sitter in an office chair against a flat wall and a striped wooden floor, describing characters from the artist’s coterie. If Hockney has a claim to history, it is grounded in such sharp description of British life, as well as its dreams of (gay) leisure, pleasure, and repose. Their expressions and postures are discrete, particular: among them is curator Sarah Howgate, whose writing is included in the exhibition catalogue, with a raised eyebrow, peering directly out toward the viewer. In larger, double-sized portraits, viewers look down at each sitter, as if directly into her or his lap, the floorboards stretching out in even rows below. A series of charcoal drawings includes thoughtful portraits of Hockney’s assistants Dominic Elliott and Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima. These are the people who populate Hockney’s life now: gallerists and curators, studio assistants, collectors. In their blithe way, the portraits are self-reflexive, picturing unselfconsciously the complex of relations that make the work what it is, as well as registering, somewhat disconcertingly, some of those who might stand to gain from this exhibition’s success.

The room dedicated to The Great Wall, too, is astonishing—even if it essentially takes the form of the most terrifying art-history exam ever composed, and even if one might want to come to different conclusions than Hockney about the history it registers. Around the corner, a new series of charcoal drawings titled The Arrival of Spring in 2013, though installed somewhat self-defeatingly in a giant salon-like field, gives proof that Hockney’s draftsmanship is still sharp when he wants it to be. Moreover, his interest in challenging traditional linear perspective (which he arrives at, partly, through Cubism) is threaded throughout the works that make up the exhibition. As it was in the photocollages of the 1980s, Cubism functions in the portraits as a disorienting force, the sitters nearly slipping off their surfaces, even as it is frustrated in the flattened, pattern-heavy landscapes. This interest unfolds as well in the large-scale new video works. One gallery is dedicated to four works each made up of fifty-five-inch screens hung in a three-by-three grid. Each scene depicts the same country road in distinctly different seasons: nine videos captured on nine cameras, mounted on the hood of Hockney’s car by his assistants, together produce an in-motion mural with multiple vanishing points. In making these, the cameras are apparently set to focus and to meter light automatically; the experience of passing slowly along the country road while looking above and below, to the left and to the right, is augmented by details lost to shadow and patches of blown-out sky, and of a tree trunk appearing blurred in one panel even as it is sharply rendered in another. The effect is mesmerizing but the technology distracting; we ought to think about the works’ weird way of looking at this place, their conjunction of insectoid, technological objectivity with romantic subject, but instead find ourselves mulling expensive monitors and recent developments in high-definition video-recording equipment.

Still, it is in these few striking moments that Hockney’s labor is vindicated, and a viewer’s attention rewarded. Disappointingly, though, the exhibition’s weak curatorial premise concedes, in the absence of an alternative argument, that the naming of an artist—the simple selection of artist-hero—is the endpoint of curatorial autonomy, from which stage the artist and his massive oeuvre take over. Yet walking through the show, we had the uncanny impression that Hockney, too, perhaps more interested in the ongoing production of work than in having a hand in the exhibition, relinquished control. In the absence of another order, one tries to identify favorites in a practice of discerning consumption that does not ultimately serve any of the work well. “A poor idea, to have one-man shows.” Shame aside, the curation of a solo exhibition is no simple undertaking. When organizing a show without the collaboration of the author, one might grapple with questions of artistic intention and public interpretation, contemporary resonance, and essayistic authorship in the service of offering a new art-historical argument. When working directly with an artist, curators can be valuable first viewers, respondents, and challengers, working closely with the artist to produce the best possible exhibition, both conceptually and formally.

But the latter position also requires critical distance. That Evans—the artist’s friend, curator, and manager—is interested, personally and professionally, in the success of these works on the market makes the exhibition’s argument (more stuff!) cynical at least, as well as comically inadequate to the artwork it displays. The exhibition becomes a catalog hawking the latest commodity objects, stamped with the institutional approval of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. At its best, curating is about more than compiling a checklist and choosing paint colors for gallery walls. It demands thought, argument, ideas, evaluation, order, and emphasis. Unfortunately, this is what the current state of the de Young, absent curators’ forms of scholarship, thought, and labor, precludes.

grupa o.k.
(Julian Myers and Joanna Szupinska)

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.